The China Project

Emma Smith and the Silk Quartet

The Bongo Club, Edinburgh, 25 November 20112 stars

ChinaSilk is the material traditionally used to make the strings of musical instruments in China. For the Silk Quartet, then, there is an elegant pun at the heart of their enterprise, drawing on Chinese tradition and fusing it with a European concert-hall ethos. Though the silk-and-bamboo ensemble is an established genre, there is no specific 'quartet' lineup to match the European string quartet; these four musicians happen to play—and sound—well together.

The four instruments are not related to each other. First (in terms of left-to-right seating) there is the erbu—a two-stringed fiddle played by Wang Xiao; a strikingly eloquent instrument with two distinct registers, which one might refer to as a mother's and a child's voice respectively. The former is marvellously rich, though under-used, while the latter is capable of scintillating flights of melisma. Next there is the pipa, a four-stringed lute, played by the group's leader Cheng Yu. It is very wide, but very shallow, with a peculiar (though elegant) white Toblerone arrangement for the first two or three frets (hard to describe, really), and a sound somewhere between a mandolin and a flamenco guitar.

Next, the surprisingly familiar yangquin is a form of hammered dulcimer played by Kimho Ip. Of the four instruments, this one would be the Rosetta stone. Little about it makes it obviously Chinese rather than, say, central European. Finally, there is the guzheng, a 21-stringed zither, similar to a koto, played by He Tiantian. Its moveable bridges afford great flexibility, while the depth of sound it can make gives the ensemble a substantiality that might otherwise be lacking.

The collaboration with double bassist Emma Smith was hatched while working on Damon Albarn's opera Monkey: Journey to the West, after a conversation about different cultural ideas about 'respect' for music. The idea is to explore similarities and differences between Chinese and Scottish approaches.

At times, it made for an exciting combination, though it should be said that on their own the Silk Quartet are already capable of some pretty remarkable music-making. Unfortunately, though, there was a third element in the collaboration, namely amplification. Whether it was really necessary in the first place in a venue of the Bongo Club's size—seating around 80 people—is moot. But faulty cables and a way-too-loud bass marred the first two or three numbers, in the process pointing to a shortage of preparation time that had its own impact on the evening reflected in an over-reliance on individual solo numbers.

That's a pity, because in two works composed for the quartet and the quintet respectively, the tremendous potential was clear to see. In the first half, Mo Fan's evocative In that remote place married traditional styles and idioms to European-classical methods of elaboration, while in the second half, Jim Sutherland's Sky Gardens was the highlight, pleasantly post-minimalist in its melodious, closely-knitted episodic writing.

In particular, this work resolved a doubt about whether the project 'worked' or not: the double bass was integrated and highly effective here to a much greater degree than elsewhere in the concert, which perhaps says something about the difference between the composer’s imagination (composers in general, that is) and the arranger's.

It will be a challenge for the quartet to build repertoire given the limited portability of the work they commission (unlike a string quartet, which, obviously, can receive any number of interpretations), but these compositions point to a rich and innovative addition to the concert scene in process of discovery.

By Peter Cudmore